The following post contains my thoughts on permaculture principle four: self-regulation and accepting feedback (as part of my diploma process). This is part 1 of a two-part series, since it’s such a broad principle. Bear with me on this longer post if you’re into permaculture.
Earth as a human body
Earth’s ability to create ecological systems to achieve homeostasis is pretty astonishing in its complexity. It’s not much unlike the human body.
While we don’t have to believe it’s a conscious organism like you and I are, we can’t deny that it’s a self-regulating organism. Some call her Gaea. Some call her Mother Earth. It’s not a new concept that the earth is a sort of individual (and we, maybe, fleas in her fur).
Let’s compare our own bodies with Earth’s body:
Within our own self-regulating organism, our heart beats an average of 115,000 times a day, and our lungs respire 20,000 times. Our liver and kidneys regulate our hormones and waste constantly, and our bodies maintain a certain temperature to keep us warm or cool. Similarly, Earth’s weather is its circulation and body temperature system, the trees its lungs, bodies of water its blood, and deltas its veins.There are some people that say our extreme weather is just earth going through a major detox, but more scientific sources say it’s because we’re just getting warmer. It’s like earth has a fever…is its immune system in overdrive? Is its body inflamed with a high temperature?
And what are we within this system? Some say we’re a cancer to the planet, an intelligent overgrowth reeking havoc on the entire system. But even cancer cells are a normal part of the human body…when kept in check, that is.
When “cancer” infests the human body, it loses its ability to self-regulate due to cancer cells surpassing their carrying capacity (when a species slows its population growth to a healthy plateau before damaging the surrounding ecosystem). The body is therefore degraded or destroyed.
And just as cancer kills us in its overpopulation, we are killing the planet in ours, so the thought process goes.
But are we really overpopulating in the sense that we’re killing off the planet, or is it just that we’ll kill ourselves off due to our own starvation? George Carlin says that we’ll just be recycled, in other words the planet will self-regulate our asses into oblivion, returning us to its earthly bosom.
I love that he points out that the only reason Earth created us in the first place was to produce plastic. If that theory is valid, I think our work is done here.
So assuming the Earth is going to be just fine, let’s focus on whether or not we’re smart enough to slow our population before we’re screwed:
Within our own bodies, blood cells will slow population growth once they reach a healthy carrying capacity for the body to function optimally. On the other hand, it’s been discovered that reindeer on an island without natural prey will multiply until the finite supply of fodder is depleted, surpassing their carrying capacity and ultimately starving to death. So really, the island itself is also self-regulating by killing off whatever is over consuming its precious gifts. Problem solved, and it eventually recovers.
Are we as dumb as these poor reindeer? Things that make you go hmm…
And then going back to our bodies: they are also ecosystems with climates, populated by much smaller organisms that need to maintain their own homeostasis in addition to that of the body. In fact, we are more bacterial cells than human cells. Take yeast cells: we all have them, but yeast can grow out of control when other organisms that control yeast population are compromised (flora), or if we flood the system with a inordinate amount of food for one particular type of critter, like sugar for example. Eastern medicine focuses heavily on the bowels, as that’s where most of the little guys live. We need to be better governing that with our SAD diet. It’s like a gorged, overabundant population when we feed it all the yummy, processed snacks we so love in modern society.
A grossly underestimated self-regulating ecosystem: soil
Similar to the flora of our bodies, the Earth’s soil is a self-regulating system: a complex, interconnected bustle of diversity living within the dirt.
We are only beginning to understand the gravity of tilling the soil each year, essentially destroying an entire ecosystem that serves as the basis for all ensuing plant life. When left unmolested of human hands, barren soil will attract pioneer plants (weeds) that reach deep down to bring up minerals, creating a bountiful enough soil environment for critters, who then make it even healthier with all their loving eating and dying, which then creates an environment suitable to low growing bushes and, eventually, trees.
Every patch of land just wants to grow up and be a forest, I once read.
Bill Mollison, the so-called father of permaculture, noted during one draught in Australia that while the managed land was crisp as tinder, the forests remained plush. He asked himself how we can develop agriculture systems more in line with how nature does it. How can we “grow up” our managed land so that we don’t have to douse our soil in chemicals just to wake it out of its nearly-dead stupor each year?
I think he’s onto something major. And yet, every year we dig up the soil and plant things in straight rows (nature doesn’t do straight rows).
And what happens when we do?
We essentially level a city. It’s like a free for all for the larger critters that eat the smaller critters due to them scrambling through their destroyed city. The larger predators gorge on the small ones, reproduce like mad, then starve…just like the reindeer. At first it gives the ground a jolt of productivity because there is so much plant food. But once the part is over, the city has to be rebuilt. And then we humans come happily skipping along, hoe in hand to ensure we totally break their spirits for good…it’s really not very nice of us!
“No-till” gardening is proving to be just as (if not more) effective than traditional plow and seed methods, for example Ruth Stout’s method of merely tossing whole potatoes on the ground and lightly covering them with hay, which rots and mulches the plants and soil:
“I never plow or spade or cultivate or weed or hoe or use a fertilizer or use a poison spray or compost pile or water. I just plant and pick. The reason I can do all this is because I keep my ground covered all year long on hay – mulched – which rots, fertilizes, keeps down the weeds, keeps the ground soft, and that’s all there is to it.”
By leaving her soil to its brilliant business of knowing what it needs to do, she has a bountiful garden. For nearly forty years, she barely went to the store and fed both her and her husband from her gardening bounty.
Are Earth’s systems also too grand for our human brains to comprehend?
Taking more of a bird’s eye view, Earth’s large-scale self-regulation is so massive and interconnected that we simply can’t get a grip on how to “manage” it. You see this with trying to save species, when it’s actually estimated by paleontologists that most species “last” 1-10 million years (which means 1-10 species go extinct each year). But there are many more going these days, and we’re likely the guilty culprits. We have been coined the “super predator” due to species habitat loss, spreading around invasive species like wild fire, and overexploiting the land. We are only just now just beginning to comprehend the ultimate and diverse repercussions of overfishing, to name one example. The impact goes beyond the fishing region. It has a domino affect…more like the butterfly affect.
And speaking of the butterfly affect: I attended a nature retreat a few weeks back where I met a PhD. candidate who is building a programme that interprets how certain special fluctuations will impact the ecosystem. He said it was a nearly futile attempt to concretely document the cause and affect of natures systems because nature’s interconnectivity is just too complex. Just collecting and analyzing data on the migratory pattern of a group of butterflies was taking the computer an entire week to analyze. So understanding our tampering is like, totally complicated.
And just for dose of humble pie at how amazing Earth is, a final example of how species and forests self-regulate:
In The Forest Unseen: a Walk in Nature, author and biologist studied the forest for a full year and documented his observations. On one below-freezing winter day, he noted the chickadee’s ability (and often failure) to endure below-freezing temperatures through self- and group-regulation.
According to this book, these little birds need about 65 thousand joules of energy to survive a below freezing night (1 joule equaling a spider the size of a comma on this page). Half of that energy is used to keep warm, which they do by shivering. “Flight muscles” in their bodies contract, just like our muscles do when when we shiver, but their shivering is much more effective than ours, producing ample heat for their bodies. They have a thick layer of down feathers ten times as insulating as Styrofoam to keep their heat. Two centimeters of these feathers will keep them warm for about one hour in freezing temperatures.
So, they have to shiver quite a lot to stay alive!
“The chickadees’ adaptations to the cold are remarkable, but they are not always adequate. There will be fewer chickadees in the forest tomorrow. Winter’s chill will pull down many of these birds…Only half of the chickadees that fed among the falling autumn leaves will live to see the oak buds open in the spring. Nights such as tonight cause most of the birds’ winter mortality.”
You may be sad for the little chickadee’s failed ability to regulate its body temperature, but:
“…the spike in bird mortality will change the forest in ways that extend throughout the year. Deaths on winter nights check the chickadee population, trimming any birds that exceed the scant supply of winter hectares of forest to sustain themselves. This square meter of mandala therefore supports just a few hundred-thousandths of a chickadee. Tonight’s cold will remove any excess.”
So, while the chickadee is self-regulating, so is the forest.
In other words, there are endless concentric rings of homeostasis going on from within and without our very being.
My grand, scientific conclusion: there is a god, and it’s a permaculturist.
Part 2 coming…
Permaculture is a small-scale way of working with the land and its natural processes so that we may sustainably reap enough food and materials to live and be happy, while not effing around with the rest of life’s natural processes. Read the more official definition on Wikipedia.
- Obtain a yield, grow your own food
- Natural farming: less is more and the value of complexity
- Endless praire
- Nature’s amazing amazingness
- Plants and people: let them be
- Front garden creates a community
- Permaculture principle 1: Observe and interact
- Permaculture principle 2: catching and storing energy
- Permaculture principle 3: Obtain a yield